“A Humanist is someone whose knowledge is acquired through reason and science, who lives an ethical life based on empathy and compassion, and who strives to build a kinder, fairer and more reasonable society. Humanists are champions of human rights and human flourishing and promote the well-being of the earth and all its inhabitants through sustainable development. Humanism has no creed but there are several manifestos and declarations outlining the humanistic worldview.”Dr A. E. Somerville-Wong
What is Humanism?
Humanism is a rational and evidence-based approach to knowledge, combined with an effort to live a good life and build a good society. It is a humble and hopeful approach to reality; humble because we do not speculate beyond that which can be known from reason and empirical evidence, and hopeful, because while we acknowledge that humanity has serious weaknesses and flaws, we are confident that humans are capable of great empathy and compassion, and this combined with ingenuity and courage, will help us to create a peaceful and sustainable world.
While Humanism has no creed, there are several manifestos and declarations outlining the values and principles which the majority of Humanists have in common, and these are useful for explaining, reflecting on, and developing the humanistic worldview. The most famous is the Amsterdam Declaration of 1952, updated in 2002. Humanism has a long and rich history dating back to the early ethical societies of the nineteenth century, with threads going back to the agnostic, atheist and other progressive movements of the Enlightenment, and even further back, through the scholarship of the Renaissance Humanists, to the sceptical and secular philosophies of ancient Greece, Rome, China and India. Humanist thinkers and activists have always been at the forefront of progressive social movements, including the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the civil rights movement, the first anti-racism movement (indeed Humanists organised the first global races congress in 1911), anti-colonialism, the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and much, much more.
In many modern secular democracies, including the UK, non-religious people with a humanistic worldview now make up a higher percentage of the population than any of the religious faith communities, though only a proportion of these actually identify as Humanists and become affiliated to Humanist organisations. As a result, the Humanist worldview is rapidly being understood and appreciated more widely. Indeed, many well-known figures alive today are Humanists, including David Attenborough, Professor Alice Roberts, Tim Minchin, Stephen Fry, Matt Healy, Sandi Toksvig, Philip Pullman, Dan Snow and many more.
Humanists come in many shapes and forms, including members of Secular, Sceptical, Humanist and Free-Thinking groups, non-affiliated individuals identifying as Humanist, and members of humanistic ‘religious’ or ethnic groups such as the Humanistic Jews, Secular Buddhists, and Non-Theistic Christians. It is possible to have a Humanist worldview while remaining culturally religious. A significant number of Unitarians, Unitarian Universalists, Quakers, Quaker Universalists, Religious Naturalists and others also identify as Humanists. Therefore, Humanism embraces a range of individuals and groups whose approach to knowledge is based on reason and science, who live ethical lives based on empathy and compassion, and who strive to build kinder, fairer and more reasonable societies. Many people today are Humanists without even knowing it. Maybe you’re reading this article right now and are surprised to find that Humanism describes your worldview!
I would also like to note here, that while Humanism does lead to strong social values, often in support of such things as freedom of speech, gender equality and democratic government – and while it does encourage political engagement – it is not a comprehensive political ideology or economic theory. Humanists may agree on values and goals but they will range widely in their views as to which political parties or socio-economic policies will best achieve those ends. We agree broadly on our vision for society but often disagree on exactly how to achieve it!
Is Humanism the Enemy of Religion? While Humanism does stand in stark contrast to conservative religious and fundamentalist worldviews, the reality is that in many cases, especially in liberal democratic societies, secular and religious worldviews have a lot of overlap in terms of values and goals. Humanism can learn a lot from the reflective practices and rituals of the religions, in order to build cohesive community, while religious communities can learn a lot from humanistic philosophy and practice, in order to overcome tribalism, dogmatism and superstition. It is vital we build bridges in these times of division and polarisation, and Humanists are keen to work as part of a progressive alliance, in order to address our global challenges and ensure a better future for us all. Prominent religious leaders have acknowledged that it is ‘practical humanism’ that has enabled the various faiths and denominations to begin to see past their differences and come together to celebrate common values grounded in our common humanity. It is practical humanism, which can bring an end to religious rivalry and sectarian violence, and which supports ecumenical and interfaith initiatives.
We acknowledge that humanity has some serious weaknesses and flaws, but humans are also capable of great empathy and compassion, and this capacity for kindness, combined with our ingenuity, will help us to create a peaceful and sustainable future. Whether members of a faith or belief group or not, we all have a responsibility to develop our better natures. All humans start out with an innate capacity for empathy, compassion and reasonableness, which can either be stifled or nurtured by the cultures and traditions in which we are raised. The only way our species can survive and flourish, and prevent political and environmental catastrophe, is to make continual efforts to grow and develop our finer feelings and nobler aspirations, and to nurture them in our children and young people. With this in mind, I would like to share a quotation from Mengzhi (better known by the Latinised version of his name, Mencius), who was a philosopher and political adviser in China in the 4th Century BCE:
“All human beings have a constitution which suffers when it sees the suffering of others… If people catch sight suddenly of a child about to fall into a well, they will all experience a feeling of alarm and distress… Because we all have these feelings in ourselves, let us develop them, and the result will be like the blaze that is kindled from a small flame, or the spring in full spate that starts with a trickle. Let these feelings have a free rein, and they will be enough to give shelter and love to us all.”MENGZHI
For those who want to dig a bit deeper, the following points outline common Humanist approaches in the three areas we have in common:
An Approach to Knowledge
- We seek to understand ourselves and the universe, and to solve human problems, through the application of critical thinking, reason and science, without recourse to supernatural explanations. Importantly, our evidence-based approach to knowledge includes the qualitative, quantitative and empirical research methods used in the arts, humanities and social sciences.
- We are sceptical of untested claims, while also being open to new ideas and departures in our thinking. We consider evidence which may go against our current beliefs and foster the humility required to do this. We are committed to overcoming our cognitive biases in a process of life-long learning.
- Our view is that beliefs, ideologies, dogmas and traditions, whether religious, political or social, must be weighed and tested against multiple sources of independent evidence. Our goal is to get as close to the objective truth as the evidence allows, and we take seriously our personal responsibility in this endeavour.
Living a Good Life
- We seek personal growth, healing and development in character, wisdom, courage, empathy, kindness and compassion, through the use of reflective practices, both individual and collective, and through secular ethics, mentorship and access to pastoral care. Our experience is that by better understanding human nature and the nature of reality – by being more aware of our common frailties and interdependence – we naturally cultivate greater empathy and compassion for one another, and serve each other more willingly, contributing to increased mutual wellbeing.
- Rather than looking for ‘the meaning of life’, we look to create meaning in life, through understanding ourselves, our culture, history and heritage, our intellectual and artistic achievements, and the perspectives of those who are different from us. We seek self-actualisation and fulfilment for every individual and community through the nurturing and free expression of their talents and creativity. Our focus is to enjoy life in the here and now, to develop our abilities to the full and become the best and noblest versions of humanity. We increasingly celebrate the meaning we create for ourselves through life-cycle events, such as humanist naming ceremonies, weddings and funerals, and through annual, seasonal and other events.
- Together, we study and develop secular ethics and best practice to achieve moral excellence. Ethics is our search for helpful individual, social and political principles of conduct, which are judged on their ability to enhance human well-being. Thus, we uphold common moral decencies such as fairness, integrity, honesty, truthfulness and responsibility. Our moral principles are tested by their consequences and we remain amenable to critical, rational guidance.
Building a Good Society
- We seek to nurture democratic, open and pluralistic societies, which protect human rights (such as individual freedom and equality) from repressive majorities and authoritarian elites. We see humanity as one race or species, where each of us is an equal citizen of the universe, and where we are all responsible for one another’s wellbeing and the wellbeing of the planet we live on. Therefore, we avoid harmful tribal ideologies, whether religious or political, which seek to separate us and pit us against one another.
- We maintain respect for those with whom we disagree, cultivating the art of conversation, negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding. Our conviction is that with reason, an open exchange of ideas, good will, and tolerance, progress can be made in building a better world for ourselves and our children.
- We are committed to the separation of the state from religious institutions so that no faith group, whether its world-view is religious or nonreligious, is given preferential treatment over another.
- We are concerned with securing economic and social justice, and with eliminating discrimination, intolerance and inequality of opportunity. Our view is that a civilised society is a compassionate one, which supports the sick, disadvantaged and disabled so that they will be able to help themselves.
- We are committed to building sustainable societies, rediscovering and respecting our place in nature, developing sustainable lifestyles, and minimising the harm we cause to nonhuman animals. We seek to restore and protect the earth, and to preserve it for future generations.
- We are committed to building cohesive communities, which optimise our collective wellbeing and flourishing, and where loneliness is alleviated by human connection, socialisation, companionship, respectful relationships, humour, fun and friendship. Some of the ways we are doing this are through local networks and meetings, community leadership and advocacy, and secular humanist annual and seasonal events following a secular calendar.
- We are committed to fostering diversity, knowledge exchange, cultural exchange, cultural enrichment and creativity. While celebrating distinctive cultures and diversity, we attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, ethnicity or ability, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.
- We respect the right to privacy, including the right of all adults to express their sexual preferences (where there is full mutual consent), exercise reproductive freedom, access comprehensive and informed health-care, fulfil their aspirations and die with dignity. While religious group rights are important, the fundamental inalienable rights of all human beings should trump religious group rights when there is a conflict between them.
- We are working to ensure all children receive an ethical education rooted in compassion and critical thinking skills, and which includes a critical and comparative approach to the world’s philosophical and religious traditions.